By Will Barber Taylor
The English Civil War effected all areas of Britain; from the highest castle keep to the lowest Scottish crofter’s cottage. It can therefore be sometimes difficult to recommend places to visit connected with the war – there is too much choice! However, here are twelve of the most important places to visit which will be fun for all the family, not simply because they are fascinating places to visit but that they help tell the story of one of the most pivotal moments in British history.
London is perhaps the best place to start. Charles the First loved the city, preferring to stay in London to visiting the country of his birth, Scotland, or most of the rest of his kingdom. Charles’ Palace of Westminster is long gone but its success is a must visit for anyone wanting to explore Civil War London. Aside from the Palace of Westminster, the old Banqueting Hall is a must see. Built by Charles’ father, James I, as a monument to his power as a King, the roof of the hall depicts James’ ascent to heaven. It is truly one of the most magnificent buildings in London and vital to the story of the Civil War – Charles the First passed through the banqueting hall on the way to his execution on the 30th of January 1649. It is perhaps tragic to think that one of the last things that he saw was a reminder of how he had failed as a King and been unable to live up to his father’s memory.
After Charles attempted to force Parliament to his will and war was declared, he fled to Oxford. Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, soon became the centre of the Royalist court, housing himself at Christ Church college. Charles ensured that whilst he held Oxford, there would be hope that he could retake the country. Oxford have many fantastic locations to visit – not simply the many colleges which make up the University but also The Bodleian Library, one of the most comprehensive and fascinating libraries in Britain. Oxford, in many ways, gives more of a flavour of what Charles’ court would have been like at its most powerful – decadent, debauched and out of touch with the lives of its subjects.
Another fascinating site to visit is Kenilworth Castle. Located in the beautiful Warwickshire village of Kenilworth, the castle has an astounding history – it was at the heart of Simon de Montfort’s plotting against Henry III and during this conflict was forced to endure the longest siege in English history. It later saw the housing of the dethroned Edward II, a puppet for his wife and her lover. The castle was even immortalised by Shakespeare in Henry V, the castle being the site of the infamous “tennis balls” scene. Amongst this astounding history also lies Kenilworth’s connection with the English Civil War. Bought by Charles I, Kenilworth proved a perfect base for the Royalist attacks into Warwickshire; Charles used it as such prior to the infamous battle of Edgehill in October 1642. After the battle, the castle was garrisoned by the Parliamentary forces – however security concerns remained and the governor, Hastings Ingram was arrested for being a suspected Royalist spy. This is perhaps somewhat ironic given that Ingram’s house in Little Wolford had been attacked been previously attacked by a Cavalier for being a Parliamentarian! Kenilworth is now a ruin because of the Civil War and a magnificent one at that, one that has to be seen.
A further wonderful Civil War site is Bolingbroke Castle. Located in rural Lincolnshire, it was the birthplace of the future King Henry IV and attacked by the Parliamentarians during the Battle of Wincey, the site of which is a short drive away. The site is a magical place to visit and has all the trademarks of as truly splendid ruin. Wincey was a crucial battle in that it marked the beginning of the end of Royalist control over Lincolnshire. Whilst the site of the battle is not easily marked, for those who wish to find it is well worth a treat to see the site of a defining moment of the Civil War.
York is one of the north of England’s truly get wonders. Like Oxford and London, it sucks in so much history that it is perhaps impossible to encapsulate all its history. York Minster is a must see for anyone who loves great architecture or history; as is the birth place of Guy Fawkes whose part in the Gunpowder Plot shocked Britain to its core. York was under siege in 1644 – Micklegate Bar which can still be seen was one of the main defensive posts used by the Royalists to keep Parliaments forces for the city. Prince Rupert relived the beleaguered garrison at York shortly before riding to Marston Moor and witnessing one of the decisive defeats of the war. Even if you don’t want to visit the Civil War sites for the city, York is a must-see location for anyone wanting to visit any part of Britain.
Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire is the epitome of 17th century decadence and style. Built by the Cavendish family on the site of ruined medieval castle, Bolsover was more for play than anything particularly strategic. The interior is styled after a neo classic romanticism of the typical 17th century manor house setting. Bolsover was garrisoned by Parliament’s forces before being ruined by their forces. The castle was however rebuilt and today stands as a magnificent monument to style and ambition.
Newark, now a sleepy Nottinghamshire market town, was once vital to the Royalist efforts to recapture Hull. Marked by its beautiful canal that runs past Newark Castle, scene of the death of King John, the town is the perfect setting for a picnic or a leisurely Saturday walk. Signs of the Civil War can be seen throughout Newark – a local pub is named after Prince Rupert who supposedly visited during the war. Other sites to visit, such as Alderman Hercules Clay’s house and the former Governor’s house, both attacked by Parliamentary forces during the war, attest to the history of Newark. A short drive from Newark is Queen’s Sconce. A series of protective earthworks, this magnificent structure was built during the Civil War and is named after Henriette Maria, Charles I’s Queen. Visiting both gems of Nottinghamshire will ensure a packed day out for anyone wanting to full understand how the Civil War effected all parts of the country and how it changed the landscape of some areas forever.
A short drive away from Newark and Queen’s Sconce is Southwell. Dominated by the imposing Southwell Minster, this Nottinghamshire town is filled to the brim with history. Once the home of Lord Byron, Southwell has an intimate and somewhat tragic connection to the English Civil War. Southwell’s Saracen’s Head pub, then known as the King’s Head, was the house in which Charles I spent his last night as a free man before surrendering to the Parliamentary forces in 1646. The Saracen’s Head is a must for anyone who wants to know how Charles felt in his final days before surrendering himself to Parliament. Other aspects of the town, such as Southwell Minister and the Bishop’s Palace are more than worth your time; the Palace in particular is a stunning building which truly demonstrates the power Bishop’s once commanded in Britain.
It is often forgotten that the English Civil War was truly British – Scotland played an important part during the war as it was because of Charles’ conflict with the Scottish Coveters that he was forced into the Bishop’s Wars – conflicts that angered Parliament and helped sow the seeds of war. Edinburgh played a vital role in this conflict – as the country’s capital, it was a target for Charles and later Oliver Cromwell who, after the end of the Civil War, wanted to force the Scottish Presbyterians to accept his Puritanism. From Arthur’s Seat to Edinburgh Castle, the city has a great deal to offer and is always alive during August for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – an occasion that should not be missed.
Nottingham Castle was one of Charles’ rallying points during the early stages of the Civil War to ensure that his army was sufficiently motivated. However, the castle was captured not long after and was garrisoned by Parliament until it was partially destroyed after the war. Now an art museum and gallery, rebuilt after a later attack in 1831, the Castle is a wonderful site to visit not simply for the Civil War but to experience art history. Nottingham itself a thriving, modern city which has greatly changed since the time of the English Civil War. A visit to Nottingham will help illuminate the changes in Britain since the English Civil War and how that’s something we must embrace.
Like Edinburgh, Cardiff and Wales as a whole played an important part in the English Civil War. The mixture of Royalist and Parliamentarian sympathisers in the country helped cause tension and like the Normans before them, the Royalists used the castles of Wales as a method of keeping control of the unruly population. Cardiff Castle was one such stronghold. However, the Royalists failed to realise the Parliamentary sentiment in Wales. The castle was taken by the Parliamentary forces, but several attempts were made to retake the castle. Eventually, Charles I went to Cardiff in July 1645 to try and convince the Welsh leaders to retake it for the Crown. They failed. Another attempt was made to retake the castle in 1648 resulting in the Battle of St Fagans. The battle resulted in 200 plus men dying. Cardiff is a magnificent city and its castle is a testament to the fact that history never runs in a way that you may think it does – Parliament’s grip on Cardiff Castle is a testament to that.
Finally, if you visit no other place connected with the Civil War on your travels, then visit Ely. Home of Oliver Cromwell, Ely’s is filled to the brim with history. Cromwell’s house can still be visited today as can Ely Cathedral, a testament to the power of bishops. If any place explains why the Parliamentarians won it is Ely – the remnants of its semi-rural, devotedly Puritan past can still be seen in the landscape of the city. Ely symbolises the conclusion of the English Civil War – the majority defeating a beleaguered elite.